This past January, Michael J. Dowling, the Chief Executive Officer of Northwell Health found himself in the epicenter of the pandemic. Northwell Health is the largest hospital system in New York state. It is also the hospital system with the most COVID-19 cases in the U.S.
Dowling’s journey towards his current position was no easy path. Dowling had a humble start in Limerick, Ireland. His childhood home had no running water and the walls were made out of mud.
However, Dowling was determined to succeed. For him, that meant getting a college degree. Dowling left Ireland and moved to England on his own at the age of 16 to work. Dowling bounced between work and school until he finally reached his goal of getting a bachelor’s and master’s degree. After college, Dowling moved to Manhattan, and worked his way up from the docks and construction to eventually becoming the New York State Health Commissioner.
Dowling’s interest in health and human services started at an early age due to the fact that his father had crippling arthritis and his mother was completely deaf.
Later on in his career, Dowling joined the team creating the Northwell Health system. Shortly after, Dowling was made the CEO of the hospital and 18 years later Dowling found himself taking on one of the biggest challenges of his career.
Dowling says the hospital first realized the significance of COVID-19 in mid-January, and he held their first meeting to prepare for its arrival. He is grateful for the organization of Northwell Health’s staff. So when the first case hit the hospital on March 5, Dowling said, “we were better prepared than most.”
Over the last twenty years, Dowling and his colleagues at Northwell health put together an emergency management infrastructure. Dowling says, “We knew exactly what to do, we weren’t making it up on the fly.”
Dowling visited the hospitals daily during the height of the pandemic, and he described what he saw as “eerie.”
“At one point we had 90 people dying a day,” says Dowling. “It doesn’t matter how long you have been in health care, I had never seen anything like this.”
“The key during a crisis like this is to stay calm, to be optimistic, have a can-do attitude, and stay very organized,” says Dowling. “You have to continually communicate with your staff, provide them with update analysis, give them a level of confidence, and be inspirational.”
Stephen Bello, a Senior Vice President of Northwell Health and a colleague of Dowling’s says, “While Mr. Dowling’s leadership is powerful, unique, and extremely personal, seeing it demonstrated outside of Northwell was not only inspiring, but it was a reminder about how special of a leader he truly is.”
Joseph Moscola, another Senior Vice President and Chief People Officer had a similar sentiment, summing up Dowling’s leadership during this time in one word: “inspiring.”
Dowling along with his many colleagues had to redesign every hospital for COVID. They added thousands of new beds, the stock-piled tons of supplies. They had to collect enough vents to go with the beds, and they had to find a lot more staff members to care for sick patients. Northwell had to cease private-practice and elective surgeries, meaning the hospital lost almost all its revenue.
“We never got to the point where we were about to run out of supplies which was important as we communicated to staff,” says Dowling. “We were always able to tell them we have enough supplies, don’t worry- that was a huge confidence booster.”
“Scientists have been warning us for years and decades that there was going to be a pandemic like this but we didn’t heed the warning, we better heed it now.”
Dowling decided to record his experiences and wrote a book called Leading Through the Pandemic. He wanted to share his story in order to shed light on his experiences so that others may benefit from them. Dowling says, “It’s about saving life, and it’s about death, and it’s about the unbelievable talent of physicians and nurses.”
“There is one moment that is representative of the kind of staff we have,” Dowling said. While walking through the hospital, Dowling saw a nurse whose mother had just passed away in the other room. Dowling told her to go home but she replied saying, “No I am not, I am staying with my team to take care of the rest of the patients. I am not leaving until the end of my shift, that is my duty.”
Dowling says, “The thing that makes me most proud and is humbling is the unbelievable dedication, compassion and courage of the staff.”